Topic: Movies Television & Entertainment

Three Degrees to Washington: When George Met Cary…

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
January 12, 2018

 “To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world to do.”
                                                                                      -Cary Grant1

“What do you do with a film degree? Sit around and watch movies all day?” As a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I earned an M.A. in cinema studies, I’ve heard my share of these questions from people I meet. They may have a point; although my cinema studies degree has helped me develop my research and writing skills, it’s hard to justify how this degree directly applies to my job at The Washington Papers. When I say I’m a documentary editor, I don’t mean that I edit documentary films! So, I’m going to approach this blog post from a different angle (with a little help from my psychology degree), and show how George Washington shares attributes with classic film star Cary Grant.

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History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.

 

Notes

1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

Making Sense of Making History

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
April 27, 2017

During the first episode of the new television comedy series Making History, a history professor named Chris lectures his undergraduate students about the American Revolution. “History is made by unremarkable people doing remarkable things,” Chris says. “How are you going to make history today?”

Making History: (from left to right) Leighton Meester, Adam Pally and Yassir Lester in the “The Shot Heard Round The World” episode of Making History, which originally aired on Sunday, March 12 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Jennifer Clasen/FOX

Directed by Jared Hess (writer and director of the movie Napoleon Dynamite), Making History introduces us to Dan (Adam Pally, Happy Endings and The Mindy Project), a facilities manager for the same fictional college in present-day Lexington, Mass., at which Chris lectures. At the end of each workday, Dan travels through time, via his late father’s duffel bag, to Lexington in 1775. Dan’s girlfriend in 1775 is Deborah (Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl), who happens to be the daughter of Paul Revere.

In Making History‘s first episode, Dan and Chris (Yassir Lester) climb into the duffel bag and time-travel to Lexington on April 21, 1775, two days after the American Revolution should have started. The rebellion has been delayed because Paul Revere is too depressed and angry to make his famous ride. It seems that his daughter Deborah has broken her engagement to a blacksmith and has another suitor (who, unbeknownst to Revere, is Dan). Can Dan, Chris, and Deborah figure out a way to kick off the Revolution so that the America we know today can come into being? As the characters discover, Making History asks how our actions (“unremarkable people doing remarkable things”) can affect the outcomes of history.

At face value, accuracy seems important to Making History creator and executive producer Julius Sharpe. In January, Sharpe told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour:

One of the first things we [Making History‘s production team] did is we had a physicist who is way smarter than any of us come in. The thing to me was getting to a point where people who are obsessed with the logic of time travel won’t be distracted by what we’re doing, but people who aren’t necessarily as sci-fi literate and don’t care about it won’t constantly be plagued by discussions of like . . . photons. I think the thing for us was getting, at least in Season 1, the rules as simple and clear as possible so that they were out of the way and you weren’t thinking about it and you could just enjoy the fact that they had gone [through time].1

Sharpe takes this approach to the show’s scientific accuracy and applies it to the show’s historical accuracy as well. By sticking to the basic facts and spirit of the Revolution, Making History avoids getting too caught up in the minutiae, which might be detrimental to attracting (younger) audiences who otherwise might not be interested in history. For those audience members, Making History can serve as a jumping-off point to learn more about the people and events of the Revolutionary War as well as history in general.

For example, Paul Revere did indeed have a daughter named Deborah (b. 1758). Deborah married Amos Lincoln, a mason who participated in the Boston Tea Party. The couple had nine children. Incidentally, Amos wed two of Paul Revere’s daughters. After Deborah died in January 1797, Amos married her sister Eliza later that year. In addition, Amos Lincoln’s brother Jedidiah married another Revere sister, Mary. But wait . . . there’s more! Amos and Jedidiah’s cousin Thomas was the father of Abraham Lincoln.2

Also, consider the second episode’s portrayal of the Battle of Lexington, which occurred on April 19, 1775. Dan, Chris, and Deborah decide to coordinate the start of the Revolutionary War since Paul Revere and the other colonists don’t seem to know what to do about the occupying British forces. Deborah resolves to disguise herself as her father and warn everyone, on horseback, about the imminent British attack. At Dan and Chris’s urging, the colonists position themselves in front of a barn filled with their weapons, but the colonists and British would rather debate gun rights than start fighting. So, Chris and Dan, hidden behind a bush, fire “the shot heard ’round the world,” which leads to the battle’s commencement and (inaccurately) to the first American victory of the war. According to historian David Hackett Fischer, while some witnesses claimed they heard the first shot come from behind a hedge (similar to from where Dan and Chris shot), other witnesses swore the first shot sounded from behind a stone wall or around the corner at Buckman Tavern. Ultimately, no one knows from where or how the first shot happened, but Making History enfolds Chris and Dan into the action by having them fire the first shot.3

Although Making History depicts the colonists defending their arsenal at Lexington, the weapons actually were stored at Concord and Worcester. The Battle of Lexington happened almost accidentally; the British were supposed to go to Concord for the stockpile, but the Lexington colonists intervened. Unfortunately, Lexington was hardly an American victory; seven colonists were killed, and nine were wounded. The British only endured one injury.4

Overall, while Making History includes some clever commentary of race and gender relations, its infantile humor sometimes distracts from its strengths and dates the series.5 Still, Making History consistently explores the ever-changing balance between how best to serve historical accuracy and entertainment and how best to make history accessible to everyone.

Making History airs on Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

 

Notes

1. “Making History: Why FOX’s New Comedy Turns a Duffel Bag into a Time Machine,” IGN Entertainment, last modified Jan. 11, 2017, http://www.ign.com/articles/2017/01/12/making-history-why-foxs-new-comedy-turns-a-duffel-bag-into-a-time-machine.

2. William Richard Cutter, New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, 2 vols. (New York, 1913), 2:670.

3. David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York, 1994), 193.

4. Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 80, 89, 198-200, 197.

5. At one point, John Hancock tricks Chris into drinking from a chamber pot. In another scene, after Chris makes a speech, Samuel Adams says to him, “You bombed up there, brother!” An interesting dynamic, for a future discussion, is the fact that Chris is an African-American attempting to navigate 1775.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Complicating the Enemy: Samuel Roukin on Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017

SamuelRoukin

Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”

Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.

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A Tale of Two: The General and The Little Lion

by Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
November 11, 2016

Washington Papers staff members Lynn Price (lower left) and Elisa Shields (lower right) met Christopher Jackson (top), who plays George Washington in the Broadway musical Hamilton, during a National Endowment for the Humanities event.

Washington Papers staff members Lynn Price (lower left) and Elisa Shields (lower right) met Christopher Jackson (top), who plays George Washington in the Broadway musical Hamilton, during a National Endowment for the Humanities event.

Many of us have listened to—and some of us have memorized—songs from the Broadway musical hit, Hamilton. Whether a friend introduced you to it, you read about it in the news, or you were one of the lucky ones to see it performed live, chances are you are well aware of this musical sensation. Without a doubt, Hamilton has brought Alexander Hamilton (and the fascinating women in his circle) into popular culture, ultimately reshaping his legacy. That is not something a Broadway play has accomplished before—or certainly not on this scale.

The first time I heard a song from Hamilton was in the car with a dear friend of mine. She had discovered it months before and had been raving about it since. Naturally, I obliged and listened to the opening title, “Alexander Hamilton.” Within the first few minutes, I was a fan. It was pure lyrical genius. While I’ve never been keen on rap, the words flowed so perfectly that I couldn’t help but ask for more. Hamilton is a perfect blend of history, humor, drama, and music. It translates history into art. The mastermind behind the phenomenon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, worked on it for over six years after serendipitously reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography while on a holiday trip. Talk about the odds being in favor of history enthusiasts!

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Lessons in Courage and Responsibility: Ian Kahn of Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Kim Curtis and Lynn Price
June 7, 2016

IMG_0205[3]Ian Kahn knows George Washington. For three seasons, he has played the General on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. An accomplished stage actor, Kahn has also appeared on Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City. Washington Papers editors Kim Curtis and Lynn Price recently spoke with Kahn about his work on Turn, what this season holds in store, and what George Washington means to him.

When he initially heard about the role of General Washington on Turn, Kahn says, “I thought how wild and wacky it was to play George Washington, but then I read the character description… and I thought, ‘I think I’ve got an idea about how to do this.’” As Kahn began working on the script during his first audition, his hopes were confirmed that he could indeed figure out how to play someone like Washington.

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George Washington in D.W. Griffith’s America: Or Love and Sacrifice (1924)

Photo of D.W. Griffith in 1919. PD-US.

Photo of D.W. Griffith in 1919. PD-US.

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
March 18, 2016

Silent film director D.W. Griffith may be best known for his narratively and technologically groundbreaking but controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. However, his filmography also includes a little-seen movie called America: Or Love and Sacrifice (1924) that is worth looking at as well.

Based on the novel The Reckoning by Robert W. Chambers, America tells the story of the American Revolution through a romance between Nathan Holden, an express rider and minuteman, and Nancy Montague, the daughter of a wealthy Tory.

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